Who's Hunting Who (Part 4)
Who's Hunting Who
The talk didn't begin until we made it back to the train - I led the way back. As soon as we boarded and shucked our cold weather clothes, Plague turned to me.
"So... Gray, huh?"
I'd kept im visible on the way back, of course. "In hindsight, the idea of a little alien following us in nothing but a scarf while we hiked up a mountain does seem a little ludicrous, I admit."
Alicia smirked. "You feeling okay Sasha? You almost sounded sane for a minute there."
"It'll pass, I'm sure," I told her and turned back to Plague. "Look, this... whatever it is. It has a way of getting inside you, that bypasses all your defenses. It's like... like he's a trusted friend, or something. One I've known a long time."
Kind of like Ivan, I wanted to say, but that might be a slap in the face to Ivan. He was the last one alive who could fit that bill.
"But aren't we friends, Sasha? Allies? Bosom buddies?" Gray asked, his head cocked.
Something was wrong here. "Yeah, we are." I choked out. I couldn't deny the little critter.
"So... alien?" Plague turned to attention to Gray, most obviously not looking my direction.
"That's right, I'm an alien. The head of a small fleet of spaceships." Gray admitted.
Plague's eyes narrowed. "You have access to alien tech? Things like ray guns and force fields?"
"I do." Gray answered.
Plague turned back to me; I'd buried the evidence by now. "Sasha, your mind is weird."
It was; the current point of view was that a witch's familiar was a mental construct, part of their subconscious or Id or whatever given form. I wasn't quite ready to believe that was true.
"And now, Sasha, if you will, please unload and move your weapons."
For a friend, even a good friend, Gray was asking a lot. I wonder how well he'd stand up to my guns. "And why would I do a silly thing like that?"
"Because I have something better to give you, and I don't wish to cause you any grief by replacing and damaging your current weapons."
Well that wasn't ominous. "What kind of replacements?"
"Weapons which will allow you to use your special skills to their fullest potential."
I moved my guns, wrapped them in cloth, and handed them over to Plague for good measure. "I'll want those back."
"Of course Sasha." Plague replied, forcing a light tone.
Beams of light occupied my holsters; I took a step back as Plague almost decapitated me. "Warning first, Gray. We're all twitchy people here."
"My apologies Sasha."
Plague was looking at my hips. "Yeah, sorry Sasha; instinct and all."
I waved her off, drawing what had appeared in my empty holster. "Think nothing of it, I'd have done the same." Even if I wouldn't have missed.
The item I'd drawn resembled a gun, but wasn't one. It was shaped like one, and had a trigger, but there was no cylinder or magazine, no place for bullets to go. The grips were slick and shiny, and the whole deal was silver and blue - the same sort of blue that was on my special clothes this morning. Well, and yesterday morning come to think of it.
"Why are there no bullets?"
"It is a laser pistol, and as such it needs no bullets or ammunition of any kind. As for the power source, you are that source."
"So I simply push power into it like I have been?"
"As you have been doing all your life, yes."
Well that was a loaded statement. I guess I had been pushing power into guns my entire life, though did it count if I was using a generator most of the time? Apparently it did to Gray.
"What about those saucer things?" I asked, flipping the thing in my hand. It was differently balanced, but fit perfectly into my hand and went anywhere I wanted it to go. If I had a complaint it was that the grip was as slick as it looked, but even that seemed to help it as I slung it around, getting a feel for it.
"Those are our ships. They can be both offensive and defensive, being armed with a stronger version of the weapons I gave you and force fields. I deployed them to protect you earlier. They also have cloaking devices, of course, to remain hidden." Gray shot Plague a look as if to say 'see, I'm telling you everything.'
I'd seen those things - they were barely big enough for Gray to fit in. There was no way they were actual ships, let alone stronger. They had looked like toys.
"And how strong are these, exactly?" I asked.
Plague took a step back. "Sasha, no. This is not the place for that...."
I couldn't hear her over the sound of the gun firing. The completely underwhelming sound of the gun firing, as it turned out; the only thing I heard was a 'woosh' and some sort of whine backing that.
The sight on the other hand was a bit more impressive; a bright blue light about as large as I was came from the weapon and the craggy finger at the top of the mountain I'd been aiming for through the train window was more of a stump. We could probably camp there, if we wanted to. The grip warmed and caused my hand to tingle.
"Too much power, Sasha." Gray told me gravely.
Well it wasn't at the Eagle's level, and as far as I was concerned that meant I hadn't used enough.
"Damn it Sasha! Are you insane!?!" Plague asked with a straight face.
I just looked at her, and holstered my new toy.
"Okay, you're right, stupid question. Just, don't do it again, alright? And leave the thing on your back slung."
There was more? On my back? I hadn't felt it there, but then again I guess it made sense; that's where the Eagle rested.
The thing on my back was a small tube, a bit over half a meter long and with a radius of around ten centimeters. It was slightly less in the center, and there were marks there... some kind of language or something... 'twist here'?
I put it back with a sigh. Rather than my holster back there, there were hooks on my belt to hold the thing.
Fine, I couldn't play, but I could still ask; I turned to Gray - did he look nervous? "Gray, what is this?"
"A pulse energy weapon. It's really quite ingenious, the weapon fires temporary shells of hard light wrapped around a core of superheated plasma and...."
"Gray. The non-egghead version." I swear, why did everyone around me want to talk about crap that didn't matter? if it worked, it worked.
"It fires a type of explosive. It is very damaging, and shouldn't be fired at anything you want to keep, or near anyone you want to keep." Gray deadpanned.
"Got it." I know he was being a smartass, but I liked the abridged version.
"Please don't shoot me with that."
I snorted. "You're absolutely safe; I wouldn't waste something like this on you." The pistols or ray guns or whatever they were would do by themselves.
I couldn't be sure about Dustin though. It wasn't like I wanted to keep him or anything, and he kept following me around like a puppy no one wanted; it was sad.
We lounged back and relaxed; or I did, Plague still seemed uptight, watching me. I didn't really blame her. Ivan was more his usual self, knocking back a casual amount of vodka and cleaning his weapons. Alicia was glancing at me and scribbling something in a notebook, and Gray was taking up a stool, kicking his feet.
"Sasha, where is Gray now?" Plague asked.
"Next to you on the stool, staring at some beer. You can't see him?"
Gray shook his head in sync with Plague as she replied. "No, he vanished again. I'm guessing he can't stay visible that much?"
I shrugged. I had the feeling it was more that he didn't want to, and if he wasn't bothering nobody I was willing to let him. At least until I got those answers he promised me.
"Right. Well, don't let him drink any beer; the last thing we need is both of you out of it."
I turned to Gray. "You heard her. None of the good stuff for you."
Gray nodded again and intoned: "You're going to negatively affect your health if you keep drinking, Sasha."
I made a point of picking up my own drink, a decent German beer from the village we'd mostly saved from Riddle, and took a long swig before replying. "Thank you for your concern, Gray."
Plague looked amused. "What? We can't hear him anymore either."
"He's trying to tell me how to live my life is all. He will learn." Everyone learned eventually.
Plague decided to get in on the action. "Yeah Gray, where ever you are, Sasha absolutely hates to be told what to do. I mean, she won't even wear the clothes I want her to wear! They would look so good on her, too. Especially the suit."
She turned to give me another once over. "Well, maybe not the suit anymore; at least not without some alteration."
I remembered that suit, and it was no great loss that I couldn't fit in the thing anymore. "I swear. I said he was right next to you, remember?"
Plague shrugged it off. I felt like a kid with an imaginary friend or something. Not that girls were allowed that little past time; if they admitted to having one, they were watched.
"So," Ivan broke in. "Do we have any new missions waiting for us, or leads?"
"Nope," was Plague's response. "Back to Central for us. Which is for the best, since any sighting of killer Cat has to be reported.
There hadn't been a sighting of killer Cat in years. What had caused her to move now? Was it really me somehow? Was I really such hot stuff somehow?
I mean sure, my guns could now smash the passive defenses of witches with no problems, and knock the tops off mountains, but that wasn't too much more than I'd been packing before, and Olivia could flatten a city inside an hour if she tried. for that matter, so could Ana. Was that it? Was it a family affair?
It was all well and good that Gray could hide; I didn't want him to get eaten. But most familiars could hide somehow, at least from other people if not other witches. Was the cloaking device Gray boasted about good enough to hide him from killer Cat?
No, something about that didn't follow. Something I should know, but didn't, and that was... well it made me boil inside.
Whatever. I'd find out when I found out. And Cat would find out how strong I was the next time we meant.
I really didn't want to go back to Central.
I settled back to nap. I could go to my room, but why drag Alicia or Plague from the bar to watch me?
I knew something was different the moment I stepped off the train. I was wearing my uniform, and my hat wasn't in view, but the moment I stepped off the train onto the station, it was as if everyone was looking at me - even though no one was looking at me.
No, not a single person was singling me out, just as hard as they could. Though there was the occasional staring yokel, some of whom I knew a little bit; after just enough of a look to tip me off the guy would always shuffle off muttering stuff I couldn't catch in the crowd. I was no genius, but I had a pretty good guess what it was.
One of them was the pastry guy, Martin or Mark or Marvin... something like that. Pastry guy ran a small stall where he made the pastries somehow (I thought you needed an actual oven for that, but I was wrong in this case) and anytime I saw him open I bought one, cause he was good at it and didn't spit in them or anything.
He was walking the street without his cart, saw us leave the station, and gave me the once over. Then like the rest, he shuffled off muttering. This time Alicia was close enough to hear it - and she snickered.
"Oh, nothing." That innocent look wouldn't fool anyone.
She turned and clapped one of her paws on my back. "It was nothing, Sasha. He just said he was glad you were no longer pretending, was all. That and the skirt suited you."
Her paw snagged my collar, preventing me from going after that jerk. "No Sasha, no hurting the normies, remember?"
"Fine." See if that guy got any more money from me. Though, should I punish my stomach that way? Some of his pastries were really good.
Central was right where we left it. I walked in behind Plague, who strode in arrogant enough for both of us. Sarah was on the desk as usual. She looked up at our approach and smiled - at me?
"Welcome back, Plague, Ivan, Alicia, and Sasha. How did things go?"
She actually said my name. And her smile seemed genuine. Gray hopped up on the desk and gave her a once over.
It hurt, but I was tough. I could take it.
Plague answered for us while I was a little distracted; Gray seemed intent in looking down Sarah's top. "It went well, we have one confirmed kill and the hat of one Riddle, may she rest in peace in Hell forever. Went sightseeing for a bit to celebrate and then came back to report the good news."
So that's how she wanted to play it, huh? Killer Cat being back was a big deal, and should be reported as soon as possible, so hunters and scouts alike were at least warned about her. It would be better if we had a current photograph, but I hadn't been about to try that. Maybe next time. I don't know, it didn't sit well with me.
"Hey, Sarah, do you have an incident report handy?"
An incident report was a brilliant piece of paperwork you used when describing something important that happened to you that you felt the hunt needed to know, but it didn't result in the death of a witch. Nowadays it was used almost primarily in an encounter with a witch that didn't die. They were not to be confused with expense reports, where you detailed any and all collateral damage you may or may not have been responsible for in the hunt for said witch. I'd made that mistake before.
Plague caught on right off, of course. "Sasha, are you...."
Sarah actually interrupted her with a smile and forced cheer aimed in Plague's direction. "Here you go, Sasha!"
She slid the form and a pen over. Huh, was that what it sounded like from the other side of things? Plague glared silently.
And then Sarah had to ruin it. "I must say Sasha, the skirt really suits you; you have some nice legs."
"So I'm told." I mean really, they were just legs. They were for walking and jumping, and they worked.
I filled out the report on the spot, and Sarah's eyes widened as she read it upside down while I wrote it. Maybe she was a witch herself? Such a skill seemed born from pure evil.
"Your handwriting seems to improved, Sasha." Ouch, she really knew where to hit me. I looked and couldn't really see a difference.
Maybe she was trying to distract the rest of my team from the very obvious fact that I was bucking an unspoken order.
Ivan stepped up and held his hand out. "I might as well file my own report while we're here."
Alicia stepped up and wordlessly held her hand out. Sarah smiled again, and handed the papers over. Ivan and Alicia had their own pens of course, because screw them. They also finished about the same time I did, because words were hard. At least there wasn't a line forming behind us this time.
"Thanks you three, I'll be sure to file these right away and type up the warning!" Sarah said, taking all our reports.
"Alright, fine. Let's just go report to the Gloom so he hears it from us first," Plague turned to Sarah. "Is he in?"
Sarah nodded. "He sure is. Would you like me to ring him up and tell him you're on the way, or would you all like to bathe and prepare first?"
She was being pretty insulting without trying to be... or was she trying to be?
"No, we better just go in. Gloom hates to be kept waiting."
That was true enough. Gloom was actually pretty easygoing most of the time, not that I'd ever admit that to anyone (least of all him) but there was one thing he loathed, and that was waiting to hear something important.
I let Plague lead the way.
There were a few people that gave us the once over on the way up, and a few hunters who fingered weapons as I passed, but for the most part I was ignored, which seemed more than a little unusual; I was a witch heading into the upper reaches of Central after all.
Plague actually knocked on the door; I didn't think she had it in her.
The muffled "Enter." came as expected.
Plague strode right in and didn't waste time. "Gloom, we have a problem."
Gloom looked up from a stack of papers that could choke a dog, his brow furrowed, and put his boots back on the floor. He looked tired, at least for him. "What is it?"
Those two words made Gloom stiffen; his back cracked, so fast did he straighten up.
"She sought us out, during the second hunt you sent us on. Showed up right in front of Malodorous, just as we were going to fight."
Gloom began to pace. "Yet you're all alive - so what did she want? Why now?"
Killer Cat was one of the few to get away from Gloom; mainly because she didn't stick around for Gloom to fight. At least, that was the rumor; After having met her in person and tasted her power, I'd have given her better odds than most. No, my gut told me she wasn't afraid of any hunter alive.
"She wanted to meet the new witch. It had been some time since she met someone with that level of power, she said. She even mentioned Olivia and Ana."
And all eyes in the room were back to me. I was getting used to the attention, kind of.
The Gloom tried for humor. "Well, I'm surprised you didn't attack her, Sasha."
"I was working up to it." I admitted, watching Gray picking the lock on Gloom's corner file cabinet.
Gloom got up and crossed the room only to crouch in front of me. "Yes, I believe you were, weren't you?"
"There is more," Plague said. "Show him, Sasha."
With a sigh I told Gray to stop using his cloaking device. He appeared, still reading the file he appropriated from the lowest drawer of the newly opened file cabinet. "I have a familiar. Gloom, meet Gray. Gray, meet Gloom. My boss."
Gray waved without even looking up. "Pleased to meet you sir. These files make for fascinating reading."
Gloom flinched. "Pleased to meet you, Gray. Please put those files back where you found them, before I'm forced to murder you."
Gray looked up, blinking his big eyes, and slid the file back in the drawer. Hopefully in the right spot; Gloom could be a stickler for such things.
"I kind of suspected as much when I saw the new hardware." Gloom admitted with a glance at my new toys.
"I've still got the old ones." Of course I did; I hadn't forgotten which side I was on.
"How long?" Gloom asked.
"I'm not sure," I admitted. "I don't think he was around when I left, but it's hard to say when he showed up."
"After Riddle." Plague said with authority. I wasn't so sure myself.
"Also, my team here thought it best they file the report about Cat being back before coming up here."
Gloom cursed, paused, then cursed again. "Why must you always do the right thing at the worst possible time?"
A good question. "Talent, I guess?"
Gloom sighed. "And of course Sarah was being Sarah?"
"Fine. I'll call her and have Ivan's report sent up."
What was wrong with my report?
"Alright, go clean yourselves up, you're tracking dirt on my floor."
How would he ever survive? I took the clear dismissal for what it was.
Darn, almost out! Here it comes.
"Hide Gray again, please. No need to needlessly antagonize people."
Oh. Was that it? "Sure. You heard the man, Gray."
Gray obligingly rippled a little, I think more for my benefit than anything else. I made sure he followed me out the door too; the last thing I needed was for Gloom to notice his files floating in midair or worse.
I had something just as important to deal with though. I turned to Ivan. "Why would Gloom want your report over mine?"
Pinned down by the combined weight of both my and Gray's stares, Ivan fidgeted.
"Well, it's just that I'm known to be a little more... thorough."
"What he means to say is that 'I arrived at Calais, and kicked the witch's ass' isn't a real report." Alicia answered.
"I wasn't asking you, sasquatch."
"Sasquatch? I'll show you sasquatch, you prissy little princess!"
Plague separated us. "Seriously, stop fighting outside the Gloom's door. It's almost a given he can hear you, with how loud you're being."
Plague raised a good point. No dummy, that was Plague.
"Right, I'm out. Going to my quarters."
"Take a shower Sasha. I'll be by later to make sure!"
Was that a threat? Who was I kidding, it was Plague. Of course it was a threat.
"Did you know your boss the Gloom knew your mother, Sasha?"
"Not now, Gray." There would be a time to ask how he knew that, not that I was in the dark about it.
No one looked at me twice as I made my way around the upper deck through the living quarters.
And then I was safe behind my door. Gray had been following me, but he was in front of me now, already beginning to go through my stuff with the same curiosity and lack of respect he'd shown in Gloom's office. Starting with my underwear drawer; Gray was a little weird.
I started the shower; it wasn't like Gray would do anything, he was an alien. Besides, he was barely over a foot tall; I could punt him if he tried.
Gray turned around, a pair of the panties Plague had supplied me with in each hand, is face serious.
"Sasha, we need to talk."
I was really beginning to hate the phrase 'we need to talk'.
"Go ahead Gray."
"You should sit down, first. While I check for listening devices."
I sat down on the bed. "We don't use listening devices, unless you mean a cup held to the wall. Too high tech and low priority to waste resources on."
He continued searching anyway. "I know they're your friends but I'll feel better if I check."
I rolled my eyes but waited. As expected, Gray didn't find anything. Finally he turned to face me.
"Alright, there is no easy way to say this... but humanity is under attack."
Wow, how revealing. "You think?!?"
"No, Sasha. I mean under attack by an outside enemy. My people specifically; aliens."
"You're the only alien I've seen." Really, he would have to try harder.
"Quit being obtuse, Sasha. The familiars are aliens, all of them. We come from another dimension. A long time ago by your standards, humanity was far more technologically advanced than now."
"Obtuse?" What did that mean?
"Please, let me finish. Then you can ask whatever you want. So, technologically advanced humans - however you were all still the same primitive and violent people you are now. So when your scientists opened a dimensional gateway into our realm, we watched.
My leaders came to the conclusion that you were dangerous as a people; and decided to end the threat. But we couldn't just visit to share our concerns or even make war upon you. The difference in dimensions and environments were prohibitive. However, we could send... a sort of shadow of ourselves across the gate, and a small measure of the power our own dimension has in abundance.
The plan was not to destroy your people, as mine are merciful, but to destroy your planet's infrastructure. We would anchor a shadow of ourselves to people who were... compatible, and carry out our war in that manner."
It made a twisted kind of sense. "So the first witch was born."
Gray nodded. "And humanity has been at war with itself since."
But that made no sense. Family bonds could not be torn apart so easily. "There has to be more to it."
Gray nodded again. "There is. Those deemed witches do as they do because of the alternative. We as a people may not be capable of waging war directly upon your people Sasha, but it is an easy matter to send a device through - a device capable of destroying your planet in its entirety. If the witches do not succeed in their mission to retard your technological abilities, my people have threatened to end all of humanity."
"You said the witches; you didn't include me in that."
Gray smiled. "As smart as ever, Sasha. No, I'm not proud of my people and what they have done. I wish to stop this senseless war and undo what my people have done. For that, I need your help. You and I were compatible; I have been searching for a friend like you for a long time."
Hang on, if the familiars were all one people, why were they so different? "Then why do you all look and act so different?"
"Because we aren't actually here, Sasha. I am a shadow of a self, an echo of a soul, sent here to guide what you call a witch. I am seen through a specific prism, that of the point of view, experiences, innermost thoughts and subconscious of my witch, which is to say you."
I didn't really get it. "So you're saying you're an alien because of me?"
"No, I'm an alien because I am. How I look, and to an extent how I act, are a result of how your mind perceives our link. As is the manifestation of your power. the same is true for all witches."
"So the fact that I use guns is because I like guns?"
"So Olivia likes dragons?"
"Likes or fears them; Some strong emotion."
There was no doubt that Ana loved her bear. And fire.
"But wait, what about the witch hat?" The witch hat just formed when the witch was made, and contained the witch's soul.
"The physical manifestation of our link, formed by the process we use to maintain our meld with our partner. Yes your kind is correct; it does house the soul of the witch. Such a practice is another repugnant offense perpetuated against your kind by mine."
Right so no forgetting where I left the cursed thing. "And the clothes? The conjured stuff?"
"Formed from the subconscious desires of the witch in question."
Uh...ha ha ha, no. "Gray do me a favor?"
"Sure Sasha,. what is it?"
"Don't ever say that again. To me or anyone else."
"Sure, if that is what you desire. Though I admit to some confusion as to why."
Confused was good. "Being confused is fine."
Gray widened his eyes. "You aren't going to explain, Sasha?"
I wasn't buying it. "Not this time."
"All right. I suppose I'll understand why in time."
Next question time: "So how do you plan to stop the others? What's your plan for stopping the war?"
Maybe if I tried, I could save lives.
Gray shot those hopes down. "I don't have one. Our best bet is to do what you're best at - killing witches to slow down their spread. I suspect the witches themselves have become corrupted, and their mission lost; humanity has lost too much of what they once possessed, and those you term witches were only meant to guide, not turn violent."
"But won't that get your bomb dropped on us?"
"It is possible," Gray admitted. "but I will know if my people try, and doing something is vastly superior to the slow death your people are experiencing now. But should my people try, there are steps I can take on my end to prevent such."
Gray turned back to my drawers, folding my clothes and putting them back.
"Like talking, Sasha. Boring stuff."
I wasn't a fan, and Gray knew it. "Chances that it'll work?"
"Well, I'm already using talk, and I'm making progress."
'Making progress' was usually bullshit speak for 'nothing will change.'
"In either case, that is my concern, partner. If you do nothing, my best estimate is human civilization will collapse inside five years. We can't just ignore the more immediate problem."
Yeah, I'd never been good at ignoring things. Not even the most important question raised before bedtime.
"Gray, what's obtuse?"
Gray turned, almost throwing a dress that I would never wear. "You mean you were serious?!? Oh, Sasha...."
Well if he was going to be a jerk about it... "Fine, never mind. I'm going to bed. Don't wander, or some gung ho hunter will put a bullet in you."
Of course, it was likely to be me, if he survived the gauntlet of my comrades, but he didn't need to know that.
Gray picked up one of my few books. "I can amuse myself here. Good night, Sasha."
"Good night, Gray."
After a moment of settling in, something occurred to me. "Gray, does the hunt know? About any of this? Aliens and invasions and the like?"
"I'm not certain, but it isn't likely. There are some events in your species' recent history which suggests the truth, but the responses of your organization suggest to me that they still believe the witches are the real threat, and have missed the true significance of those events. It is certain the rank and file do not know."
....Right. "Okay. Good night Gray."
"Alright, how bad is it?" Gloom asked.
"Well, pretty bad, if you consider Killer Cat," Plague answered. "But Sasha remains committed. The familiar took awhile to show itself, but it's here now, and Sasha hasn't wavered."
"Maybe not, but we have no idea what lies the thing might be telling it. Her mother lasted weeks before succumbing, after all."
"You're going to have to trust her again sometime." Plague said.
"Maybe," Gloom repeated. "But I still want you there monitoring things, for a while yet. Just a few missions, until we can learn more."
"Of course. What I can tell you is that Cat is interested."
Gloom snorted. "I gathered that already; she's actually appeared after all."
"No, I mean think about it. This is the first time she's moved in recent years, that we can confirm, because she left witnesses. Not only did she not kill the witch she was interested in, but she left us alive; she didn't come out of hiding to fight. Or at least not fight us, not directly."
Gloom stroked his jaw, wincing at the stubble he found there. "An interesting theory. One I'm not willing to test at the moment. If she shows again, drop everything and run, and call me. She might be able to handle you or me, but she can't handle us both."
Plague poured herself a drink. "You don't even have to tell me. I'll run, if she lets me. But I wouldn't be too sure about her combat strength if I were you. I felt her strength."
"She was stronger before. God only knows how she got crippled in the first place."
"I don't know - maybe I'll ask if the opportunity presents itself." Plague's smile was brittle, and the joke fell flat.
Gloom stood up and swiped Plague's drink. "Well, sounds like I need to go do some damage control. Calm the masses, stop any potential hysteria."
Plague looked at her empty hand sourly. "Good luck with that, boss-man."
"Oh no Plague, you're coming too," Gloom replied with a humorless smile of his own. "I need all the eyewitness details, and the rest of your team has already fled after dropping this bomb on my lap."
Plague sighed and gave him the finger.
I woke up to some disturbance downstairs. Gray was sleeping, having burrowed himself into my arms.
He was cute, sleeping. There, I said it, and nothing bad happened.
I untangled myself from him, but he came awake the moment I stopped touching him.
"Good morning Sasha."
"Good morning Gray." It wasn't actually morning yet, I hadn't slept that long. The noise downstairs sounded vaguely like a fight, but who could be attacking us here?
"Sasha, get dressed before you go downstairs please."
Oh, right. Wait, hadn't I been dressed when I went to bed? I was in pajamas now... pajamas with little green spaceships on them. My hat had been in my hand of course, and was now missing though it had to be on my person somewhere.
A touch on my head confirmed my stupid hat was there - as a hair band, complete with some sort of cloth ear. I pulled that out pretty quickly and turned to Gray.
"Your doing, I suppose?"
How Gray had managed it without waking me was a matter of some worry. If it had been anyone else except Ivan, I would be freaking out right now. Or having a short talk at one end of a long barrel; freaking out was something the Dustin's of the world did.
"Your clothing was soiled and fragrant; how you can sleep in that state is beyond my understanding." Gray answered, and despite having no nose as I understood the term, I could actually feel him turning his up at the smell.
Right. I chose to take him seriously. "Long practice eating garbage, sleeping in low end dives or ditches by the side of the road, and eating things that would make a rat puke. So why the pajamas?"
"I didn't want you getting cold, Sasha."
That.. actually made some sense. "Fine."
I went to the dresser and grabbed some pants and a shirt. I turned around and Gray had another pair of pants and a shirt; the only difference were the colors. What was wrong with green?
"Come on Sasha; Just try mine."
"Fine." I grabbed the clothes and went into the bathroom.
Gray had snuck underwear into the shirt - whatever, I put those on too. The clothes fit and were comfortable; and they matched the hairband. Or the hairband matched the clothes; it had been a different color itself a few minutes ago.
Whatever, don't question it Sasha.
My new guns went around my hips, and I took the time to put my old guns in pride of place. I should probably take them as back ups, but I just couldn't work out where to strap them on where they wouldn't get in the way.
There was no one at my door, which actually surprised me a bit. I would have suspected a watcher.
The halls were empty; even more empty than usual. For all that the sound increased, Gray and I didn't see anyone until we hit the stairs. And then we saw everyone.
There was an honest to goodness party going on downstairs in the lobby. Tables of food were set up, tables of booze were set up across from the food, and at least a few hundred people, hunter and civilian alike, were chatting, mingling, and dancing to music I could barely make out over the roar of the crowd. There were actual sounds of merriment that didn't sound forced.
Well, not all of it anyway.
As soon as I was noticed, the sound dimmed and the music stuttered to a halt.
Gray pushed me from behind, and it was go forward or fall. "Go ahead Sasha."
The Gloom met me at the bottom of the stairs; I hadn't seen him from the top, or seen him move. "Welcome to the party, Sasha."
Close up the party looked a little slapdash, a little thrown together at the last minute, with the brand new decorations hanging on a prayer and the food looking more like someone ran out and bought as much as possible rather than a ordering it.
"What's the occasion?"
"Beating Riddle. I wanted to have something like this before, but circumstances conspired against us."
Was beating Riddle such a big deal? She was considered one of the great powers, sure, but a B lister among them. She had managed to pull her shit in several cities and get away, but she'd never depopulated entire regions.
Huh, kind of said a lot about me there, that I had the bar set so high for major threats.
"Well, guess we can party now. No new fires to put out?"
The Gloom shook his head. "Not a single one; nothing that can't wait a day. Go ahead and relax; grab a drink, eat something tasty. Try not to shoot anything."
I smelled a rat, but he was the boss. "You're the boss. As usual, no promises, but I'll try to contain myself."
"Good," the Gloom's hand clapped down on my shoulder to stop me cold. "One last thing - is Gray here?"
"Yeah he is."
The Gloom let up. "Good. He's invited too, but keep him invisible and keep him out of trouble."
I risked a glance to Gray; he was saluting both the Gloom and me with all seriousness.
"Will do." The Gloom didn't have to tell me that Gray would make people... twitchy. Things were bad enough as it was, though looking around there were fewer daggers in the stares I was getting.
Must be my imagination.
Oh well, priorities; I started off to the booze... and my train was promptly derailed by Ivan.
"Not on an empty stomach Sasha," He said and steered me away and toward the food. "You'll be able to drink more."
That was a good point, and I conceded it silently.
The buzz of conversation didn't stop, but it did grow in our wake. I was beginning to catch snatches of it here and there, and the tone at least wasn't 'burn the witch'. I relaxed a bit, now at least a little more sure I wouldn't turn a corner and see a stake with a bonfire set under it.
One of the tables was filled with my favorites; all of them, all at once. The table next to it was filled with food inspired from Ivan's home, and past that was some hoity toity French food; the expensive stuff that Alicia liked.
I grabbed one of the little cheese and cracker sandwiches and took a bite; that was enough to guess what store it was from... Miles's, which was across town on eighth.
Sarah walked up and snagged a little bacon wrapped bundle; I knew of those from Bacon Barn, which was only four streets away. "Good evening, Sasha."
Hey, wait. Had she just talked to me? Just walked right up and talked to me, without me talking first or cornering her? She was smiling at me even, and it looked different.
"Hi Sarah. Are you responsible for getting all this together?"
"Hah, no. There was too much for me to organize on my own. I did do some of it however." Her glance upward at the decorations told me which part she had done.
She was soon joined by someone I didn't recognize; a cute brunette girl a few years younger than Sarah in a matching uniform. "Hello Sarah! Hello Miss Sasha, I'm Vivian, and I'm new at the office. Sarah is teaching me the ropes."
Oh, had the new recruits graduated already? How time flies. "Just Sasha, Vivian. Hello and good evening."
Vivian snagged one of my cheese and cracker sandwiches and bit into it daintily. "Oh, this is good. Cheddar from Switzerland?"
Hell if I know. I shrugged, just as another guy so new he squeaked walked up. He was in a gray uniform that still had the creases in it. "Hello Vivian, Sarah. And hello Sasha - I'm a big fan, I've wanted to meet you for some time."
"And you are?"
"Pearson, newly graduated hunter." He held out a clammy hand to shake.
I didn't want to shake; if this guy lasted a week, I'd be surprised."Pleased to meet you."
Everyone in range stopped and looked at me.
Ivan made a show of looking around. "I don't see any of the horseman, false alarm."
"You were polite. Not only that, but you were polite to a fellow hunter. We thought the world was ending."
"Oh, ha. Ha." I was surrounded by assholes.
Pearson looked lost. "Take a good look, this is what real hunters are like in the field."
He took a good look... then took another one. At me. Now I was fine with him doublechecking Sarah, because who wouldn't? But his eyes crawling up my form were weird.
It was almost worth a sigh when he turned to study Vivian. Almost.
The sigh caught in my throat when we started getting crowded. A bunch of other hunters new and old were closing, walling us in. If a hand strayed near a weapon here things would go very badly for someone.
But instead it was: "About time you woke up! For a guest of honor, you sure are lazy."
"Yeah, screw you Steve." I think I needed to wake up more; my amazing wit was less amazing.
:Another: "Hey, anyone who can finally kill Riddle can sleep as long as she wants; that witch killed Armand a few months ago. I wanted the payback myself, but never could catch up to her - well done Sasha, at least one of us got her."
"You're welcome Gunther, but to be fair I wasn't thinking about any of that." Mostly I'd just been thinking about how I'd failed to catch up to her myself, and how annoying she was.
Gunther shrugged that off. "That's fair."
As if that opened the can of worms, everyone gathered pushed a little closer and started talking all at once, flashing smiles and clapping me with ready hands. A flash or two of a time a few years ago tensed me up, but I relaxed. There had been worse times than those. from those times I knew what was coming next.
"Story, story, story." And there it was, the dreaded chant."
"Get Plague to tell it." I answered; she was much better at telling these kinds of things than I was.
They just kept chanting.
"Fine, fine. But I'm not going to tell it sober. Get out of my way and we can reconvene at the beer."
As the newer hunters started moving, Plague foiled my perfect getaway. "Don't do that; Sasha will run. Steve, you're beer slave. Bring it here, and we'll wait."
Steve walked off muttering, but the other hunters closed ranks.
I turned to Plague. "I'm going to owe you for this one."
She grinned back. "I owed you for earlier. start talking."
With no option other than talk or shoot them all (something I considered until Gray gave me the look) I talked.
The morning after, just like all morning afters in the history of the world. I didn't want to get up until my head actually split open and ended the pain. Of course there was the matter of a small alien, currently bouncing on me.
"Your stomach is very tight, Sasha. This is unexpected; it doesn't look muscular at all."
"Gray, I'm going to hold you down and throw up on you."
He stopped, mercifully. "Oh? Are you ill, Sasha?"
"Yes Gray, I'm ill. What time is it?"
"Currently seven forty-six, according to the alarm clock you recently slept through."
Was that what this was about? Was he bouncing on me because of a stupid alarm? I hadn't been able to escape the party last night until three, when most of the people forming the ring around me had passed out, leaving an opening. By then of course, I don't think the remaining upright people were too interested in me anymore; they hadn't given chase like they normally would have.
There was no hair of the dog that bit me in my room; or any other part of the dog, for that matter.
"Gray, I have a very important mission for you."
"I want you to go outside this room, find the lobby, find a bottle of booze, preferably beer. Then I want you to pick it up and bring it back to me."
"I'm afraid I can't do that, Sasha. Ethanol is poisonous to the human body, and you've had far too much of it of late. You'll end up losing those stomach muscles, among other things."
Did my imagination figment or whatever it was just sass me?!?
"Gray, you bounced on me; you owe me. Now go get me some booze."
"Gray, I'm going to shoot you."
"If you desire alcohol, you should retrieve it yourself."
But I didn't want to move! Where were my guns? They were across the room, on the table near the door; I would have to get up in order to get them. I tried to grab the little bastard, but he skipped out of the way and off the bed out of sight.
A pox on everyone. A pox on all houses! Poxes for all!
I rolled over and held onto the bedpost, using it to lever myself up. My legs didn't really want to work, so I leaned there a moment, searching for my prey. My vanished prey; oh well if he was under the bed he was screwed; not even I knew all of what lurked down there.
Now steady, I headed toward my guns. If Gray thought I wouldn't blow up my bed, he was sorely mistaken.
I looked down; the demented little gremlin was below me, his outstretched hands full of cloth. Come to think of it, it was a little breezy this morning. I reached for the little jerk but only netted the panties. And of course I overbalanced and fell over.
Oh well, might as well put them on.
And Gray had vanished again. where had he gone? I checked under the bed (might as well, I was already on the floor) but came up empty. I heard my bathroom door close, and of course my guns were missing from the table. Why had they even been over there to begin with? I usually slept with my hardware, and even here the nightstand that was the usual home for my weapons was in reach of the bed.
"Gray, why are you hiding from me? Aren't you my familiar?"
"I'm not hiding from you Sasha, I am here." Gray's answer came from the bathroom of course.
I straightened up and strode over, only to find more cloth on the doorknob. A bra; it smelled clean. With a shrug, I put it on; I'd need to eventually anyway.
Gray wasn't immediately visible when I opened the door; I spent a second wondering where he could have gone before I realized the shower curtain was pulled and the shower had just turned on.
That was not something I wanted to see, at all.
"What the hell, Gray?"
He started humming, and that decided things. I pulled the curtain back with a whisk to reveal Gray, still in his pilot suit, a shower cap around his nonexistent hair, sudsing up. He turned to me and asked pointedly, "Do you mind?" Before turning away. My guns were hooked around the showerhead.
I was not getting into the shower with a figment of.. whatever like that, clothes or not, and with the way the showerhead was set, I'd have to get in to retrieve my weapons, which would then get wet and be in need of cleaning. Turning the water off would run the same risk; my guns were safer where they were for now.
"Some aspirin and water are on the counter next to your uniform; I suggest you brush your teeth as well."
So that was his game, was it? Well I'd show him, and inflict my horrid breath and scuzzy teeth upon the world! Or maybe not, since I could smell it too. Fine; I brushed my teeth first, mainly because I hated the idea of getting toothpaste on my clothes and then the Gloom finding out about it later. the aspirin came next; the water I downed them with tasted odd; it was what I expected coming from a clear stream and not Central's water tap.
I put my uniform on and there was a brush under it; the meaning there was clear. I realized as I brushed that my hat was a ribbon, and entwined in my hair; I hadn't even felt it. As I brushed my hair out around the ribbon the shower cut off and Gray stepped out, wrapped in a towel... my favorite towel.
"You look well today Sasha. Ready for duty."
The smug bastard. "Yeah, ready to kick some alien ass." I replied as I finally retrieved what I was looking for. They appeared ready for use.
"Um, shouldn't that be "Ready to kick some witch ass?" Gray asked me.
"Not just yet." I informed him, and he was gone.
I hit the front door while it was still swinging from his passage; there were boots there which I dove my feet into without dumping too much momentum; odds were there was broken glass and other sharp things lingering in the halls. "Come on Gray, it'll only hurt a little! I promise!"
His answer was surprising - and angering. "You should avoid loud utterances Sasha; your co-workers are sleeping."
He wasn't wrong; some of them were even in the halls. I'd have thought were hit last night after i went to bed, but the moans and groans told me everyone was still alive, for various definitions of the term.
I was still on thin ice; waking up some trigger happy jerk dealing with their own morning after, especially with a ribbon or hat on my head, was not a smart idea. Having someone find out that I was chasing my familiar would be disaster. Some of my fellow hunters could be downright violent and not at all reasonable.
As much as it annoyed me, I had to be quiet. That was fine, I was used to silent stalking.
Oh hey, Sarah was at the front desk, without a single hair out of place and only her cute yawns betraying last night.
She spotted me as I hit the base of the stairs, and didn't look away.
"Oh good morning Sasha! You're up early."
I winced; my head was kind of fine, but I feared for the heads of the bodies spread around the lobby. That was just a bit too loud and cheerful.
"Good morning Sarah. How are you awake?" Sure she had drank less than I and many others, but she had still been drunk enough to dance.
She smiled, and all but shouted: "Well, this morning is my shift, and some of us have to put on a professional demeanor for our customers, the citizens."
Uh, okay. "Have you had many people come in?"
"Not a one!" Sarah replied with enough false cheer to choke me. "But it's the principle of the thing, isn't it?"
"I guess so." Gray was behind Sarah's shoulder, giving me a pointed look. I'm guessing it would be a bad thing to admit I wouldn't even be awake if not for... random chance, yeah that was it.
"Well, if we get a call I'd like to put my team in for it. Or Plague's team. Or Ivan's, whoever is leading it now."
"Not Alicia's team?" Sarah asked with a sparkle in her eye.
She was joking with me, and that was amazing, but some jokes just shouldn't be made. "Hell no. I will sit in a ditch and pull the dirt up over me before the bearded lady is my boss."
Sarah's giggle was like music. "I was just kidding Sasha, and I'll put you down for a job; there isn't a long list so far. So what are you up to? I didn't expect to see you down here so soon."
Gray was wandering off toward the training rooms. Specifically the large one I'd been given permission to use the last time I was here. And what had Sarah meant by that, exactly? "Training, apparently."
"Well good luck. Try not to break too much."
I started after Gray. "I'll try but no promises; you know how it is, the janitorial staff would have nothing to do but sit around and drink without us."
That sounded like a grand idea, actually. I wonder if Gloom would let me transfer, at least for a little while.
The door to the training wing was open, and the door to my specific room was open. I entered to find Gray on top of one of the targets. I shut and locked the door behind me, and turned the 'in use' light on.
"Do you really think I need practice? I don't miss, Gray."
"Not with those, Sasha," Gray replied, pointing at my guns. "But there are other things to learn."
"We're indoors, can you even summon those things here?"
"Not those either Sasha." Gray replied.
"Well then I'm pretty sure I don't know what youre talking about."
"Science, of course." Gray explained, pointing to my head.
I pulled one of my new guns. "Not following you, and honestly not caring. I'm just too tired, and my head aches too much."
Gray cocked his head. "Are you Sasha? Are you really?"
I took stock. I was tired earlier, but I felt fine now actually, and my head was as clear as a bell's tone. "Okay, maybe not, and we will discuss how you did that later, but for now, dance!"
He danced, and my shot actually missed. "Clean living Sasha, and I thought you never missed?"
Why that little.... He danced again, and I missed again.
"Use your visor, Sasha."
Oh, right. With a thought my ribbon squiggled in my hair (and that felt all kinds of weird) and reformed into my helmet and visor; the HUD clicked on and outlined Gray as my current target; Gray danced out of the way again as my third shot went off, but the beam curled around, chasing him. He lunged and hit the ground running, weaving in between the stationary targets; the shot went through five targets before losing steam.
He was playing a dangerous game.
A second lock on was followed by a third and a a fourth, then several more. When I fired again, the small pistol fired a full dozen shots, all of which tracked Gray around the large chamber, wiping out targets along the way. Until there were no more targets, and Gray didn't have anything else to hide behind.
He looked to me, but I was already moving; That was an old trick, and one I've dealt with before. As fast as the little guy was, he couldn't catch up to me before the last 3 shots found him, and they were light of a sort, or something, so he couldn't force them to hit each other. All three shots found him, and passed through him? Without a target the shots rapidly lost cohesion and killed some wall paint.
He was gone, but I knew he wasn't dead or even hurt. Instead, he was smug. "A good effort Sasha. You should attempt to remember how that felt, so that you may use that ability again."
"What did you do?"
Gray faded back into view, holding up a small rectangular box with a button inset on it. A device of some kind, clearly. "I teleported to my spacecraft."
Teleported. "Can I do that?"
Gray nodded sagely. "Of course, but a spacecraft is the only destination as yet. I've yet to ascertain whether it is possible to build a teleportation station on this planet; current technology seems to suggest otherwise."
Yeah, right. Sure thing. "I have the feeling that you and Emil would love each other if you could talk."
Gray cocked his head again. "But we can discuss matter of science. You need only allow me to reveal myself to your colleagues."
"Yeah, let's not do that." Gray and Emil must never meet; together they would blow up the world or something. Probably something worse. "So, teach me how to do that teleportation thing."
Gloom came to; as always secretly happy that both he and the installation he was in charge of were in one piece. His own office immaculate as always, he took the steps to match before leaving the friendly confines of his office. There was a surprising lack of blood in the halls, and all of his hunters appeared to be breathing, which was always a plus after a celebration. Some were even beginning to rouse themselves, and before noon.
The less that was said about his own hours today the better. The paper engine that ran this place wasn't going to rubber stamp itself, after all.
Most of those in the lobby appeared to have roused themselves and moved off, likely with Sarah's gentle urging; the lobby itself was in the recovery process and almost clean, but there were still some areas best not traveled over.
"Good afternoon, Sarah." Gloom tried not to look too deeply into those lovestruck blue eyes. It was best not to dwell on such things.
"Good afternoon Gloom." Sarah replied, gazing up at im before snapping out of it and grabbing a stack of paper from under her counter. It was sizable, he noted with dismay, and clipped together."
"Today's hunter requests so far. Do you want them?" Sarah asked, her tone almost demanding he take the things.
"Yes, I'll take them." He would have to sign off on them anyway; there was no sense in sending a runner to his office later, and the fact that it made him look busy as he took this walk was a plus.
He pretended not to notice Sarah stepping out from her kiosk and putting her toes to a blissfully snoring hunter that didn't even stir; the young gentleman would be some interesting shades in an hour. Gloom shrugged; really it served him right - it was well known that Sarah had some issues with 'slackers'. it was also well known that drink was no excuse as far as she was concerned.
Someone was working, however; Gloom noticed the in use sign was flipped over training room two and only room two. Something about the number tickled his memory for a moment, those brain cells holding the memory no doubt dead to his drink of the night before... but then he had it.
He employed his key override and cracked open the door, cautiously.
His caution was rewarded; the inevitable sounds of breaking items were muffled. The expected explosions were absent, however. A glance inside was a qualified risk.
The last hunter he expected to see was inside the room, currently contorting herself into dodges most would be hard pressed to match while snapping off shots aimed at debris currently flying around the chamber at significant speed.
The shots were not truly bullets but were instead silent lances of light. Silent lances of light which would arc or in some cases loop back completely in order to hit their target. A target which without exception was the size of a dime and no larger. There were an even dozen beams of light in the air, actively hunting targets at the moment.
In her wild corkscrewing gyrations, Sasha's gaze crossed the door; her visor washed out all view of her face and eyes with it's brilliant blue glow, but it was clear she noticed the door was open when she slowed her spin to a stop. No more beams joined those already in motion and the extra targets fell to the floor with a clatter.
"Who's there?" Sasha's hands holstered her new weapons and drew away from them; slowly but just fast enough to give the illusion of nonchalance. She had been taught very well.
"It's just me, Sasha."
Gloom could see her visibly relax, but only because he knew what to look for. "Not sure if that's a good thing or not boss, I kinda made a mess in here.
A mess was a bit of an understatement; the reinforced walls ceiling and floor all bore scorch marks, there were a few new shallow dents here and there, and not a single target of either stationary or mobile variety was in one piece.
Yet at the same time, nothing of the room itself needed replacing, and the walls were all intact, after hours of use. Sasha had clearly been taking it easy in here.
Sasha leaned back, a hand ruffling her hair and her eyes widening ever so slightly; proving that she could read him as well as he could read her; he would have to work on that.
"Well it looks like you're at the limit of what you can do in here by yourself. how about I help you?"
He slowly bent down and put the clipboard down; he knew it would be safe there near the door, even in the heat of a pitched battle.
"Um, I don't think that's a good idea; I'm getting a little tired, I've been working on this for a while now. Out of curiosity, what time is it, anyway?"
"A bit after noon. How long have you been in here?"
Another tell, this one of slow burning anger. "Since about eight; that...!"
And there it was, Gloom thought. The wedge. "What that, Sasha?"
Sasha drew back, her lead foot trailing through the debris in a manner reminiscent of a child caught in a crime. "Nothing, nothing at all. I just got up early is all, and decided to practice."
That image when combined with her uniform... Gloom would have suspected magic. He decided not to make the statement. "You can trust me, Sasha."
Sasha deflated and the words came out in a rush. "It was Gray; he made me get up, and drink water. Water! I've only had a few hours of sleep!"
Gloom fought to keep the smile from his face. Whatever the demon seed had done to her, she seemed the better for it; lively almost. "See? That wasn't so hard. However, you did lie to me, so... a hunter must be ready to battle at all times. Even when a little tired."
Gloom drew his gloves on, relishing how all the blood fled Sasha's face.
Alicia was entirely too happy, flitting around without a care in the world, well past noon. She hadn't exercised, not the way I had.
"Wow Sasha, you look like hell."
I needed to sum up the pure evil of the morning in one word. What word to pick was easy.
Alicia blanched. "Is he still around? Come on Sasha, don't do me dirty today."
I decided to have mercy. "He's in his office. He had his fill making my morning."
Alicia sat down at the bench beside me, and one meaty hand clapped me on the shoulder. It actually hurt a little. "Damn Sasha, that's rough. Sorry."
She rubbed my shoulder a bit more, her unibrow knit in concentration.
"What are you doing?"
"Just feeling those little chicken bones of yours. Were they always the size of toothpicks?"
Right. I was tired, but not that tired. "Ha ha. You want some training of your own?"
Alicia Gripped a bit harder for a moment as she stood up. "How about we forget all about that, and I get you a little hair of the dog that bit you?"
I stared at Gray. He stopped looking at the device he was holding, and stared back. "Get me some water too, and it's a deal."
"Water?!? What the hell? You going to take a bath right here or something?"
"I know, I know, just do it please."
Alicia stared at me a moment. "Don't get all flakey on me, Sasha."
"Fine, do it or I'll shave half your beard so you look funny."
Alicia clapped me on the shoulder again. "That's more like it! Be right back."
While Alicia did her thing, Ivan stepped down, adjusting his weapon belt; he visibly started when he saw me, and walked over.
"You look like hell Sasha."
"Yeah, getting that a lot lately. Gloom decided I needed practice."
The visible wince Ivan gave was a little gratifying; someone else knew.
"Sorry. You seen Alicia?"
"Yeah, she made it down already and decided to be nice for a change; did you wake her up or something?"
Ivan nodded. "I did, then Plague wanted to bend my ear over something. It seems I had more bounty money to pick up, and the bean counters were getting nervous that I hadn't banked it yet."
"Ah. I hate when that happens." For most hunters, they made some money, they put some into retirement savings.
I thought it was a scam; the only retired hunter was a dead one. Though if you wanted to pay for a really big funeral I guess it was useful.
I remembered the last one of those I went to.
"Here you go, Sasha. Water, a beer, and some aspirin, courtesy of Sarah."
I looked up at Alicia, who was actually smiling. "Thanks."
I took the items pills first, downed those with the water, finished the glass and threw it at Gray (who had clearly expected something and caught it) and took the bottle. It would be best to sip it slow.
Ivan raised an eyebrow as me as Alicia sat back down on the other side of the bench.
"What? I was thirsty."
"Nothing," he replied. "So, how many teams do you think are up and ready to be fielded at the moment?"
"Can't be many," I replied, scratching my chin. (Which was still annoyingly hairless - I didn't know how Alicia managed.) "I haven't seen too many people awake, let alone people I'd consider fight ready."
"You don't consider anyone fight worthy," Alicia said, clearly trying to start a fight.
I kept calm. "Not many, no. but in this case, not too many awake and upright."
"Then its very likely we'll get sent out if we're here," Ivan said.
"Yep, sure is," I agreed. I was fine with that, really. Well if I could walk more than five steps. And if my head would stop pounding.
"Yeah, let's go outside for a bit," Alicia replied with a weird look at Sarah.
Ivan stood and offered a hand. "Come on, I'll buy."
Well, I wasn't one to turn down free anything, so I let him help me up. "Buy what?"
"I don't care, you pick... as long as it isn't too expensive or a new gun or something."
What a spoilsport; you could never have too many guns.
"Works for me."
The joke was on them anyway; any assignment that was coming in would still be ours once we got back.
The sun was too bright; I had to manfully resist my temptation to use my visor or even just expand my hat and put it on. Wearing a hat here would not be a good move, even with my uniform.
"So where to?"
"The market?" Alicia suggested.
There weren't many beer stands or bars in the market and those that were there were along the edges. It was all food or clothes or stupid crap no one wanted, like hand woven baskets or dolls or crap like that. It wade me a bit curious; why did Alicia want to go there of all places?
"Sure, fine, whatever. But we're going by way of third."
Third street near the market had the best cheap dive this entire town had to offer; 'throat-cutters'. It was like that old British place, hooters, except for assassins. I liked it because we wouldn't be disturbed there; I was already getting enough attention on the street to make my trigger finger itch.
alicia rolled her eyes dramatically but conceded. "Sure, I could use a drink myself."
Maybe I'd start wearing my bum disguise more; I shouldn't be getting this much attention in Central, I was well known here. Would a disguise help or hinder that?
At least the idiots knew well enough to stay well away from us. Only I was allowed to step on Gray, and he was having a hard enough time already with that. Too curious for his own good i suppose; the lure of knowledge of how humans were seemed to be more than he could pass up.
I had to rein him in when he started rifling purses and bags while the owners were staring at us.
"Gray, stick closer and stay out of people's stuff."
I said it softly, but I was sure both Alicia and Ivan heard me. They stayed quiet about it, but it was hard to hide the change in body language. I idly wondered which one of them had my collar control, but dismissed the thought as pointless; either the button would get pressed or it wouldn't - worrying about it was a waste of time.
"So, eat yet Sasha?"
"I had some breakfast before Gloom got ahold of me. Kind of. If you count those protien bars as breakfast."
"Yeah, we don't do that," Alicia informed me, slapping her own middle. "Let's get some lunch then, before we hit that dive of yours."
"Fine." I was feeling some bread. I wasn't sure what kind of bread, but I wanted bread. Maybe garlic bread marinated in butter? With some summer sausage or bacon on the side, or even slapped in between it? But where would I get such a thing, no restaurant, food stand, or greasy dive offered that sort of thing.
No, I knew where the desire for that fare came from - a small house, set up on a hill, a forest behind it and sheep pastured to the left and right of it. A summer day with hay and dust in the air, and the smell of fresh bread tickling the nose. It chilled me just thinking of it.
"Sasha, you okay?" And just like that I was back, Alicia's words snapped me out of it.
"Sorry, was just thinking," Gray was looking up at me, head cocked and squeezing my hand. I squeezed back, then pulled my hand away before someone noticed. "I'm good with whatever."
Alicia wasn't buying it. "You sure? You looked like you had a thought there for a moment, rattling around all lonely in that empty head."
"Ha ha. Yeah, I'm fine, let's just find something at a stand somewhere."
What was that? I hadn't thought of that day in years. Why now? Was it Gray's doing somehow?
Ivan let it alone at least, but I could tell it would come up again later.
We settled on wraps from a stand; there was some choice involved, so I chose bacon and peppers. Judging from the taste, it actually was bacon, which was a welcome surprise; even in Central one had to be careful. Lunch had the added bonus of being easily transportable, which meant that by the time we had finished up, we were at my 'dive'.
Well I was finished; luckily the bouncers didn't bat an eye if you wanted to bring food in. Some even encouraged the practice for known clientele. The new blood were laughed at if they ordered something from the pitiful menu and got sick; it was almost a right of passage. Of course, hunters didn't get such treatment in any event, no matter how new.
The contrast between bright sunlight outside and shadow laden gloom left me blinking of course, as it was meant to do. I navigated easily despite the handicap and found myself at the bar; the order of tables and booths never changed in this place.
Surprisingly I was recognized right off. "Sasha! Glad to see you aren't hiding behind that silly trap disguise any longer."
The bartender, Mike, was supposedly observant. But he'd always been one of those who steadfastly insisted I was a girl in disguise. He wasn't big in the survival instinct department. Was it worth the fight? Would I get convicted if I killed him?
I surprised myself by not wanting trouble, or a return of my headache. "Yeah, you caught me. Unless I'm disguised now of course."
Mike grinned and slid over one of his specialty beers. "Nah, your voice says otherwise. You finally stopped trying to talk out of the back of your throat too. I like it, it's a nice change."
I sat, very mindful of Ivan and Alicia flanking me. "you're lucky I don't feel like it today, Mike, or you'd already be on the floor."
Mike held up his hands in surrender, and his tongue went to the gap in his teeth I'd put there last time he said something stupid. "Sorry, the sight of you in a skirt shocked me. The beer is free, alright? Just don't hit me."
Despite the words, he was still grinning like an idiot. He was really lucky today. "Fine. Just serve and go away."
He served and went away, and I was just about to relax when a pair of sim hands settled around me and gave a squeeze. Breath tickled my throat. "Long time no see, Sasha."
Natasha, which wasn't her real name, was an oddity. By all accounts she was one of the best assassins in the world. Whether that was true or not, she was one of the few who had the skills to be a hunter - yet didn't hunt. She wouldn't even kill a witch when she had the perfect opportunity, so the rumor went. I wasn't a fan.
Tall blonde and statuesque (I'd heard her described that way once, and it seemed to fit; she certainly looked like one of those fake Roman bronzes placed outside houses of ill-repute to give the place a touch of class.) She appeared to be in that ageless age, where one could not pinpoint the actual year she was born. She was always dressed in the best clothes, ate the best food, and drank the best liquor. Her accent was thick but probably fake; yet a skilled fake. I'd yet to see a single hair out of place - or see her fight, and yet all manner of nasty people stayed out of her way. Well, those same people stayed out of my way too.
Natasha didn't even look away as she eased up, she just profiled right. "Move."
Alicia moved and Natasha took her seat. "So, Sasha... you seem to have upgraded from 'trap' to one of us. Care to tell me how?"
What did traps have to do with anything? I knew how to lay some - simple snares mostly, but being one? That her statement was some kind of male insult, I was sure. She had little use for men, and the manlier the more she hated.
"Am I going to have to shoot you, Natasha? Besides, how would you know? Mike seems convinced I was like this all along."
"Simple," she replied, downing her drink, an uncut whiskey unless I missed my guess. "Those aren't forms on your chest, there is more movement in your stride, and most importantly - you smell...differently. A female scent is a thing no man can fake. So care to tell me how I find you here, smelling of a better you mixed with exotic explosives, and missing your trademark pistols in favor of something decidedly not you? I'd very much like to know."
Her finger tapped my back, so quickly I'd bet no one else saw... but there could be no doubt; it was my hat she was tapping.
What even was she, part bloodhound? Smell me? Smelled the explosives enclosed in the metal collar? Did she smell my hat too?
Whatever. If she started something, she started something. She was undoubtedly good, but an experienced hunter was better. I showed her my teeth.
"Lab accident. Blame Emil if you must."
Natasha raised a manicured eyebrow. "Quite the accident. I think I must; blame Emil that is."
Having Natasha stalk Emil was a nice image, even if she normally never did anything for free. I couldn't see where the weapon pointed at me was, but I was sure it was there. Gray stepped up behind her unseen, and pointed it out. A small derringer or spike gun controlled by a toe... installed in her heels. Natasha really had missed her calling.
Not that it would slow me down; it would have to be a very heavy shot for the new me to even notice. But it was the thought that counted.
Natasha leaned in on me again with a sigh, coincidentally aiming a heel my direction. "Such a shame... you were growing up so well; almost as beautiful as I, with such wonderful male energy. The only thing left I recognize is your anger."
"You can always get a more first hand view of my anger. Just keep draping yourself on me." Had Natasha gained weight or something? She was almost pulling me off the barstool, and that hadn't happened in years. It was deliberate I was sure, but it wouldn't affect my ability to blow her away; I'd just roll the other way and draw.
Natasha got off abruptly, but I absorbed the shift in balance. "I think not. You still have the same eyes, Sasha darling, and you are still a student of a master. Some would say THE master; I would be foolish to antagonize such, wouldn't you say?"
Now she was speaking my language; it was always nice when someone recognized my talents. "Of course I would, but I always say that."
Even the worst student of my teacher would have little issue with Natasha, for all her amazing talents. Without a generator I was confident; well, without a generator and any odd powers.
"Of course," Natasha admitted. "Well, enjoy your drink, little Sasha. My apologies for the interruption."
With the last word Natasha flat out melted into the shadows as well as any human could. It was actually difficult to pick her out as she went back to what had to be the most well hidden booth in the place. The other denizens of the place hadn't so much as moved towards it during our exchange - her throne, possibly.
She'd also done me a solid. By coming to me first, she kept the lid on other's curiosity. Even now they were watching, but watching was all they were doing. Kind of an odd thing for her to do, but then again she was always a little odd.
I was happy to finish my drink in silence though, even if Alicia was all but rolling her eyes and Ivan was sighing a lot and glaring. I'd hoped for some actual conversation, if not from my own team, then some interesting intel from the other shady types here; shady types often knew things before anyone else did, for a variety of reasons - but mainly because their lives depended on it.
Want a lead on a witch? An assassin could have it, since taking a contract in a territory a witch has set up shop could lead to contract failure and death.
But no, no one was forthcoming, when usually I'd have at least three tips by now, all carefully worded to not actually mention names or places and so avoid any witch's wrath. It was actually one of the few reasons this dive was tolerated so close to the Wyld Hunt's central office, not that we made a big deal of it. There were even similar dives sharing space with our other offices too.
Whatever. I sighed and walked out, leaving Ivan and Alicia scrambling to pay and catch up.
"What was all that back there? Usually you can't shut up if your life depended on it Alicia."
Alicia took a minute to answer. "They weren't sure what to make of us, and I didn't want to give them ideas."
"You worry too much, they weren't going to start anything." They were my kind of people, after all.
"They don't like new things, Sasha. And you dressed as you are is a new thing to them."
That... was actually true. Maybe Natasha had done me more of a solid than I knew, even if the rumors about me would probably hit the most remote corners of the earth by noon tomorrow. Oh well, it was bound to happen anyway.
And with Natasha's name behind it, the words might mean fewer complications down the road. Not that I'll ever admit such a thing.
In the market at last, and Alicia took full advantage, flitting here and there and inspecting everything with gleaming eyes. At least she wasn't giggling like Plague would.
I didn't need anything except to restock my booze, and I wouldn' do that here. I guess I could shop for some weaponry; maybe some sharp pointy things or things that go boom. You never really could have too many of either, and Central attracted some of the best weapons dealers on the planet.
Alicia was shopping for skirts, of course. She held up a lemon one and asked: "So what do you think?"
Was she directing that question at me? She was looking my way. I looked behind me, and there wasn't anyone nearby except Gray.
Huh. I guess she was. "I think it's too bright and way too small." It was true, there was no way she'd fit in that thing.
Her grin was... more than a little unhinged. "Not for me, silly. For you."
Ah, she actually was crazy. "Same answer. Something that bright will get me killed, and I doubt I could stuff myself in it."
Alicia made a show of checking the tag again while the merchant, an older woman sharing Alicia's build minus the muscle fumed in the background.
"Really? It's a three."
That sounded familiar... like a size Auntie might have mentioned, or the one marked on the back of some of the skirts Plague dumped on me. But that was a trap, and Alicia wasn't catching me in it.
"Besides it's not meant to fight in, you already have the uniform for that. It's for time off."
What? "What kind of time off is there, that my uniform isn't good enough for?"
I mean our uniforms were pretty respectable (when clean anyway) and used for everything from weddings to funerals. What would looking like a lemon be good for?
Alicia tossed the skirt on the merchant's face with a sigh. "We really have to get you civilized."
"We really don't," I told her. "I'm not some dress up doll."
"But you are as cute as one!"
Ivan stepped between us. "Alicia, can you not antagonize armed people in a crowded market, please?"
"Fine, fine. I'm sorry, Sasha."
What. Did I hear that right?
"Did you just apologize to me?" I turned to Ivan. "Did you hear that?"
Ivan elbowed my ribs. "Quit trying to antagonize armed people in a crowded market, Sasha."
I really wasn't; I was actually shocked. But whatever. I stood on my toes with my hands behind my back and sang out: "Sorry Momma Ivan, it won't happen again."
Ivan choked while Alicia laughed and muttered something that sounded like "Too real, oh my God, too real."
"Can we shop for things that actually have a use now?" Like weapons.
"Not all of us like dressing like a bum when we aren't on the clock, Sasha."
I had to admit that was a fair point. "Fair, but bums don't have to worry about looking out of place."
Bums also didn't have to worry about getting billed for 'excess damages and excessive force' until much later if at all. But hey, having two coins to rub together was overrated anyway.
"Whatever, if you need to clothes shop, I recommend the tent stand over there; just leave me out of your sick fantasies, okay?"
"Tent shop! Why, I'll have you know my figure is best described by the word 'svelte'!"
"Is that a Russian word? Because that sounds like a Russian word."
Ivan stopped looking amused. "And what's that supposed to mean, exactly?"
"Nothing at all. It just sounds like a Russian word, and its a well known fact that Russians favor larger women. Larger, hairier women."
Ivan opened his mouth... and then closed it. He opened it again. "You know, I want to argue with you, but I really can't. Svelte is French though."
"Oh great, I soiled my tongue with French words. Only another beer can fix that."
Great, now Gray was giving me the stare. I almost called him out on it - but in a crowded market that was a bad idea.
"Not a bad idea," Ivan admitted. "I think I saw a stand over there Why don't we let Alicia work the shopping bug out and quench our thirst on this hot day?"
As excuses went, it was a good one. The day wasn't even hot - but it could be. We left Alicia looking inside some shop or other; she would catch up to us when she was ready. The stand wasn't far, and while the beer wasn't great, it was wet.
I leaned closer to Ivan. "What is it, Gray?"
Looking way from Ivan toward where Gray was pointing made it easier to ignore the face Ivan was giving me. It also allowed me to see that one of our own hunters was currently running as if a fiery demon were on her very impractical heels. I didn't recognize her and she had no weapon, so she was likely a secretary pressed into service as a runner. She was young, with short auburn hair lit on fire by the sun, and she was on the small side, though larger than me. Aggravatingly so.
She stopped in the center of the street and looked around with wide eyes as I pointed her out to Ivan. "Time to vanish?"
"Time to vanish." Ivan agreed.
Any runner sent to find us, had to earn the right to talk to us. If they couldn't find us, they didn't deserve to call themselves a hunter, let alone give us a job that would more than likely be annoying. I mean, any hunter had an island of calm in central no matter how busy the streets were; if she couldn't pick up on that she needed to go back to her master and beg to be retrained.
As expected she homed right in; now it was a foot race. To her credit she didn't waste time or breath on words, but broke into a sprint.
It was almost laughably slow, but it was a sprint.
I led Ivan around and up the side of a shop, using a convenient rain gutter. (Was it supposed to point right out to the middle of the street like that? I thought it was supposed to be aimed at the drains instead.)
Ivan kept up, though it seemed he was getting a little slower in his old age. He was also studiously avoiding looking up, which reminded me I wasn't wearing pants and that had to be a thing now. Just another thing to not to be spoken of ever again. Ivan and I already had plenty of those, so one more wouldn't hurt. Gray somehow got ahead of us; he was waiting for me when I pulled myself over the top.
To her credit the slow Huntress managed to find us; if she was mad that we were sitting on the roof's edge, dangling our legs in practiced nonchalance, she didn't show it.
I wasn't impressed with her cardio however; she had to gasp her message at us. I'd have to lead her a bit farther afield next time. "Sasha Norre, Ivan Naseef, you're needed back at Central for a mission."
I shrugged. "Message received, on our way."
There was no one under us, and it was the fastest way down. I slid off, and Ivan followed with a groan. Barely over a second later my feet touched down.
"No need for the theatrics, Ivan. We've taken plenty worse falls."
"It's the principle of the thing, Sasha."
There was a whump behind me followed by a short cry. Well well well, our messenger had followed us down. She hadn't stuck the landing, probably due to her ridiculous heels, but she'd tried. I moved to get her attention and pointed.
"For the record, if one wanted to find Hunter Alicia, she would be that direction, probably in the same clothing store she was in twenty minutes ago."
"Thanks," the messenger said, immediately sprinting off with just a bare hint of a limp.
Time off was overrated anyway, but Alicia would decide how much we got by how lost she got.
And now we were headed back to France. Plague wasn't with us this time, she had been sent somewhere else; Gloom hadn't told me when I asked, and I hadn't pushed.
Ivan was technically in charge now, because no one in their right mind or otherwise would give Alicia her own team. One of the two had the trigger to my lovely new fashion accessory, the bomb collar.
I wasn't going to do anything about it of course, but it was something to note. If either of them wound up dead, or even worse, became compromised, I was going to have a bad day.
So why were we headed back into France so soon? It seemed that in some nowhere village in southern France, rumors of a certain witch had spread. A certain which who used blood based rituals, according to the sites the locals had found.
With luck, it would be Suspira. While other witches used blood rites all the time, blood was her specialty. I really wanted Suspira's head on a plate. The problem is, she was another strong one, like Riddle was.
Truth told, she was probably stronger. My team would likely never have been sent after her alone before skirts became part of my uniform - not that I was bitter or anything. She had a larger body count but usually played with people less, preferring to just kill them.
It made the case that the witch the locals had found wasn't her, because they were still alive. Still, she could be playing the long game, so it warranted a strong team rather than rookies to follow up on, lucky us.
I wouldn't really care, but... France. Again.
Of course Gray was having the time of his life; his little face plastered to the train car window, drinking in the scenery while I drank a few other choice things.
I was alone in the car; Ivan had opted to grab water of all things, and walked out, muttering something about checking inventory; he was taking this leadership thing way too seriously. Alicia was somewhere - didn't know, didn't care.
The train didn't run all the way to this out of the way hole in the forest we were going to, so we would have to hike more than a few miles through cheese country. I wasn't really looking forward to it - but someone had to do it.
Maybe I'd get a chance to take an actual break after this one; I wanted one, suddenly. Well, I wanted something anyway, I wasn't sure what.
Lemonade would do for now, even if it was clean of any of my choice additives.
In front of me was a book; one that didn't even have pictures. I'd been staring at it for awhile; even if I were into books, this one would lose me after a sentence. Or make me fall asleep.
I really needed to read it though, even if all the sentences were like 'from the zen state, turn South counter clockwise, then face the North point and press your palms together.'
No joke, it actually said that. It was a book on magic, after all. I wasn't sure how to feel about not being able to make any sense of it; but it was all Greek to me.
I had gotten it from Central's library; the hunt still kept a few, to better educate us hunters. Most hunters burned such books in the field because they were a valuable resource to all witches; even mortal enemies had been known to ambush hunters who killed their rivals to get a book. Central had a rather amazing library under lock and key anyway.
This book was a suggestion. One could even say it came highly recommended; it even had some good hints on what we were likely to run into.
But all that did not change the fact that Ivan and Alicia both were elsewhere as long as it was open, and my nose was in it. I had to admit that reading was unnatural, but they were taking the revulsion a bit too far.
When I read, I learned new words. I wasn't sure what revulsion had to do with blood magic circles of protection, but I'd figure it out. It might be something I could use though, if the worst happened.
As long as I didn't get the squiggles wrong. Bad things would probably happen if I did.
"Why are you even bothering with such tripe, Sasha?" Gray asked. Somehow in my ruminations he had snuck up on me and was reading the diagram over my shoulder.
"Because it may come in handy later."
"But it's all dependent on the mind the ideas came from. If you want a circle of protection, you'll provide it yourself. The power is yours, not some foreign gods or spirits. Your abilities do not work that way."
"But other witches are, well, witches. They use stuff similar to this, and can even learn from each other."
"You are not most witches, Sasha, and all are different. You know this. Some are similar enough to share ideas, but this book? Wasn't from one similar to you. Aside from recognition, which you already have, the book is a waste of time for you."
"Well, that's all I really need to hear." I mean, I knew it, but it was good to get a second opinion.
I tossed the book in the corner. It had been something to do, but if reading it would lead to bad habits, I'd rather just sit and clean my pistols. Of course my new pistols didn't need it, being crazy magical science or whatever, and my old pistols didn't need it because they had been cleaned already, but the act of checking them over gave me something to do.
The train slowed as I was finishing up. The village of Frejas, on the coast, if I remembered my map right. A very old place. We had to go inland from here, because our target was Mont Vinaigre, a very commanding mountain that had a tiny little village on top and bad roads. It was almost predictable as another witch habitat, being tiny and remote.
Too obvious really, anyone who had been in the game long enough would realize that. But then again, witches kept falling for it, so maybe there was something to it after all? Maybe one day I'd find out.
Ivan opened the door and walked up to snag a bottle. "We're here Sasha, time to go."
I grabbed my own bottle. Hard lemonade, I wanted it and it was here. Ivan's eyebrow rose and I stood there for a moment, daring him to say anything.
He didn't, so I left to get my gear. The gear I may not really need, it Gray was to be believed. I'd still be taking it, because even if I could just fly up the mountain and fly back, my team couldn't, and they might need my stuff even if I never did. Plus I wasn't leaving my old pistols here; just like at Central, if I wasn't there they might vanish.
The things I worry about now; no one would even have dreamed of trying to take my guns before.
Maybe it was just putting boots on French soil again, maybe it was the point that I was stepping outside a train for the third time in a month, staring at a wooded path into the country, but this suddenly felt like all the times I'd done this before. I felt tired, for some reason, even though I hadn't been awake all that long really. Weary, that was the word.
It didn't matter, what I felt. I had a job to do.
It was lucky that we didn't need to go into town.
"Hey, can we stop in at the town? We can see if they have anything interesting in their shops."
The decision whether or not to shop was out of my hands. But good for all of us Ivan was closer to me than Alicia.
"Maybe when we come back; we don't need anything now, and I don't want the witch getting away."
"So the train's staying?"
"Yep," That wasn't really odd, but it did mean nothing else really important was going on. Either that or someone was pulling a string in case we needed a quick getaway.
Pulling out of a station with an angry mob on our heels had only happened once, I swear, it happens one time and no one ever lets you forget!
Okay, so maybe Twice if you counted that time in Morocco. But come on, no one ever counted Morocco.
Whatever, just let it go. A trail ahead of you, just like all the other times before, one foot in front of the other, scanning for threats.
Wait, I didn't need to just use my eyes to scan for threats. "Ivan, permission to do a thing?"
Despite the fact that we could clearly see the village behind us (it made a rather nice backdrop) no one was around. Ivan made sure and nodded.
"Sure, as long as it isn't explosive."
I worked with assholes. "Not everything I do is explosive."
My hat transformed from it's normal floppy self; Gray helped me pull the visor out of my uniform and set it.
There were no human life signs near us, only small animals. I wasn't sure what the range was, but there were no ambushes in the immediate area.
"Creepy," Alicia told me.
I was curious. "What is?"
"That... thing on your head is lighting up, and it feels warmer when you look at me. What are you doing?"
"Scanning for threats. I don't have to just use my eyes anymore. You don't need to worry, it's not hurting you."
"I wasn't worried, I trust you," Alicia told me. We both knew she was lying.
"Don't need to worry so much, this is just another case of 'whack-a-witch.'" Good old Ivan; nothing really got to him. He started off, leading the way.
"They do keep popping up lately, don't they?" I followed.
"They enjoy us slapping them down," Alicia opined.
I couldn't really argue with that, they wanted the punishment.
Fun fact, having space ships up in the sky made it even easier for Gray to spot potential danger than it did for me.
"Sasha, The village appears peaceful. There are humans milling about in it, and none appear distressed."
Or to spot nothing, in this case. "Ivan, the village seems to be fine."
"Right, that's a good thing. We have a contact in it, who can tell us what is going on."
It was the hike of an entire day to get up to just the base of the hill; sunshine and tweeting birds and rustling animals, snapping branches in their haste to get away from us. The trail was clearly marked, and we stuck to it. Our contact met us at the base of the mountain. I pulled off my hat/visor before he spotted us, and shifted it back. Gray helped me hide it again.
He was old, only a bit taller than I was, and more grizzled than anyone I had ever seen. He had a bunch of scars across his face (claw marks) and head (giving him stripes of baldness) which I could tell he wore with obvious pride. He was well into the ranks of the white haired, but his back was unbent and he was still sporting enough wiry muscle to make people half his age jealous.
And he wasn't French, that was a plus.
"Well, if it isn't Central's best team." British, and sarcastic. I could work with that.
"That would be Gloom's team, but yeah we're pretty good."
He turned to look at me. "Sasha Norre - you seem... different in person."
Jerk. "Crap happens. And you are?"
"Warren. A businessman, lately retired."
Yeah, I didn't believe that for a second. "Sasha,as you noted. That's Alicia, and that's Ivan. What do you have for us?"
This guy still believed I was in charge, or was willing to act like it, so I'd let him.
"Pleased to meet you all. What I have, is a problem. There are some caves, or catacombs, or both in some cases, beneath the mountain. They are relics of some old war or another, and the police regularly patrol them. During one of those patrols, several circles, drawn in blood, were found in a few of the chambers, along with sign of recent habitation.
The police themselves are baffled, as there have been no disappearances or even reports of strange activity, so they called me in. And I of course, called in the hunt."
So, same old crap, different day. Witches always found old ruins or catacombs or graveyards or some other out of the way place to set up shop. Or tried to take over small towns or villages in out of the way spots. They all did it, and it just got so old.
"Lead the way," Ivan told him when I didn't.
He started visibly and turned from giving me a second look. Yeah, he knew something was up. At least he wasn't trying to piss me off yet.
"This way," Warren told us, setting off on an overgrown trail, silent as a whisper.
We matched him and eased our way through the forest. He didn't talk, something I was grateful for.
Warren led us halfway around the base of the mountain along a few different deer trails before parting some cut brush to reveal a massive steel door, thick with rust. It had one of those wheel things you turned to open it, and he spun it to the left and tugged.
The door slid wide, making less sound than we did. Warren answered my raised eyebrow with a shrug, so not his doing.
Wherever we were, Warren felt safe enough to pull out a small flashlight and turn it on. A casual piece of technology; we used small torches, and following his lead we broke them out. I didn't exactly like it, but without some source of light we'd be totally blind; just past the door there was no other source but us.
I also broke out the chalk; standard procedure in dealing with potential mazes of tunnels. I spotted Alicia doing the same; there was no need for both of us to do it, and I normally did because I was the fastest to get armed. Well, that and Alicia hated chalk dust on her hands.
It wasn't that big a deal, really. She made her first mark, a stylized arrow leading in, which would hopefully show any signs of tampering, and on the opposite wall I made my own much more simple arrow.
"You know, the passages are all clearly marked," Warren commented idly, at full volume.
I answered in kind. "Better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it. Sign posts have been tampered with before."
The signs were in German, judging from the first one, which seemed a little odd. The walls were thick gray concrete that was crumbling away from it's metal bones, and maybe had been for longer than Ivan had been alive. Certainly whatever war this place was a relic from had been a distant one. Which one I couldn't say, the Germans and French hated each other.
That had begun when people were still using sharpened sticks to fight, and witches were only legend or rumor.
Three lefts and two rights later, Warren stopped, shining his light on the first evidence we'd seen of why we were called.
It was a symbol for certain, something deliberately painted. They were even painted in blood, going by the smell. But that was where any similarity to the painting I normally saw in my job ended. This crap wasn't even anything like what I'd just read about.
For one thing, it was in French, not Latin, and while I didn't know every word, I knew enough. For another, it was painted poorly, on a wall, and the blood allowed to run. That was a really big no-no for this kind of thing. And lastly, it mentioned the "four elements" and "the God of between" when both were clearly wrong.
Ivan looked to me. "What do you think?"
"What do you think?" I returned.
"Looks bogus to me," Alicia told us, unasked. "Something like this would be worse than useless against a witch or familiar."
"I see," Warren said. Probably more to say anything at all. I kind of hated people who did that sort of thing.
"Yep, this thing is pretty much bad, or whoever painted it is dead somewhere. There is no way Suspira made this."
Warren paled. "Suspira?"
So he wasn't told. Oh well, operational security wasn't something I really cared about. "Suspira was listed as the likely suspect for this. I no longer think it likely."
"Well, there is more. It could be a new witch, just coming into her own."
"It could be," I replied as neutrally as possible. After all, I had some pretty good insight into the mind of a freshly minted witch. Far more than I was happy with, and this seemed nothing like any of it. "lead on, McDuff."
Warren gave me a stare before shrugging and moving on. What was his problem?
Another left, another right, and a gentle curve right and down led us to a large room, empty of everything but trash. Remains of old food containers, old boxes, and old bones sat side by side in the corners, while crudely made tables lined the center - inside a series of circles that were painted at least a bit more neatly than the first we saw.
Also in French, the same words and markings for the most part, designed to ward off nothing, or to protect nothing. Gray rushed ahead, collected some of the blood in a little tube and inserted that in some kind of machine.
"It's deer blood, Sasha."
Well, that pretty much ruled out witch, even a young one. Any real witch would use human blood, even if it was their own.
I made a point of inspected one circle closely. "This blood doesn't even look human. No witch made this."
"How can you tell, in this light?" Warren asked.
"Practice," I told him to cover my tracks. Everyone expected a hunter to be able to do things like this, and it occasionally came in handy to fake it. Not that they were wrong or anything, we were all pretty bad-ass.
Ivan and Alicia probably suspected the truth at least, but Warren was totally fooled.
"If not a witch, then who?"
"I don't know, but it's way too messy to do anything. If someone tried to use this, you'd have found the body. All I see here are deer and rodent bones, brushed off into the corners, which point to a likely source for the blood. Then there's the deer skull mounted in a place of honor on that northern wall. If it were a witch, that skull would be human; they don't usually off wildlife."
"Who then?" Warren asked, right on cue. "This is too fresh to be an old haunt for someone."
"Right, this has been painted over a few times, the last time was maybe weeks ago," I turned to Ivan. "What do you think, our turn again?"
Ivan nodded. There was always a group a year, usually stupid idiot kids that had nothing better to do and no one capable of teaching them anything. So they would form a group of witch groupies, hold seances and do other half-baked occult crap, and basically act like jackasses until they either got our attention - or the attention of an actual witch.
Usually in either case, such a discovery ended in blood and tears. We took a dim view of the phrase 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.'
Alicia sighed, her breath a breeze to make her beard wave. "Didn't we do it last time?"
"Nah, that was Jenkins, last year, in Austria. We dealt wit it two years ago now, in Spain."
Two years already? Where had the time gone?
"Is someone willing to let me in on the joke?" Warren asked, not quite glaring at me. Clearly he wanted me to do it.
"Every year or so, somewhere around the world, a group of idiots crops up. They aren't an actual group or anything, there's no structure and they don't know each other, but usually a group of idiots falls to the 'evil is so amazing, let's side with it' lure, you know, like some British do with vampires."
"Dear God, really?" Warren's surprise was pretty much the response everyone had when told that little gem.
"Really. The hunt doesn't really say anything because the one time you find something like this and expect morons, you'll get a witch, but it does happen. The culprits here are probably in your village. If we're lucky, they're just kids, but stupid adults exist too. The group we got ahold of in Spain were actual cultists, worshipping witches as gods."
I hadn't liked them much - and come to think of it, they hadn't liked me either. There was some irony in that.
"Well, that's a bit of a pisser."
I couldn't agree more. "Yeah. So, let's go find your gaggle of idiots."
"Wait, shouldn't we explore a bit more? Just in case this is all some witch, trying to pull fast one?"
I fought to keep my eyes from narrowing. And after I'd just explained to him that Central had kept such things under wraps, too. It was like he was waving a flag or something.
"Fine, let's search a bit more. It can't really hurt."
Warren led us around by the nose a bit longer, but of course the only thing we saw was more of the same.
The last straw was Warren trying to point out the same exact badly copied circle on a wall next to an old shattered cannon as the first one as evidence again.
"Nope, no witches here man, we've seen the whole place, or enough as makes no difference. So, about that town."
Warren sighed loudly enough to scare off the rats. "Right, fine. I was hoping you were wrong. Knowing that our kids - that my daughter could be - doing something like this is... well, I've had more fun days."
Good recovery. I might even believe it, at least for now. Warren started leading us back the way we came.
"So, is there a tunnel that leads further up, into town?"
"No, the entrance I led you too is the closest."
That sounded like more bs to me, but again, I let him. It was Ivan's call now, not mine.
We were led out with a good view of all our arrows, none of which had been tampered with. Back outside, the gentle climb became steep, and in some cases almost straight up. There was no trail or road here.
There was a wall, once we hit the village limits. A small wall, about as tall as I was, made of uneven stone piled up and glued together with some kind of mortar or cement. We worked our way around to the back entrance, which faced an almost sheer cliff. There was a trail, but it would be very hard for someone attacking the place to use it. Down was easier than up.
The village itself was like most we saw in our line of work; another postcard village with amazing scenery and very old houses that were always too small and drafty when you actually blew all of your money to come and got to see the inside of them. Another poor place that passed itself off as something more than it was.
The graveyard was much bigger than you'd expect for a village this size, even one as old as this one.
People were rushing around, enjoying the crisp cold air and sunshine, doing their random thing... which seemed to involve a lot of weaving wool. There wasn't even a single visible sheep.
We were met at the gate by a bent backed old man in a nice long coat. Next to him was a very proud member of the french wannabe hunter squad, all spit and polish on brass and gold. Neither were armed, and neither looked happy to see us stroll up.
"Good afternoon, noble Hunters," The old man said, bowing low. "I am Tollini, mayor of this village. I hope the day finds you well."
I hung back and let Ivan take the lead. "It does, honored elder, though our recent visit to your catacombs has burdened our hearts."
Ivan knew how to lay it on thick - but in this case it seemed to work; these two were lapping it up.
"How so? Does a foul witch plague us?"
No witch was going to plague the gathering or weaving of wool. It would be pointless to tell them that, however.
"No, the calamity which befalls you is far more insidious than a mere witch. It is a witch-cult. Those who would be servitors of a witch bound together in unholy acts done in their names."
I found myself mouthing the words behind a hand. 'The calamity which befall you'? What the heck?
The wannabe hunter sighed and slumped, while the old guy looked more concerned if anything.
"A witch-cult? But we've no missing, no dead."
Yeah, no more flowery speech. "It is our belief they are kids, led by kids. The circles investigated are drawn crudely in animal blood, and so far no infernal powers have been drawn upon. It might be that the cult itself is harmless, however there is always a chance that any such delvings could draw the wrong kind of attention. It's best for that reason to root out such things as soon as possible."
The french hunter was looking at me in a way I did not like; there were faint stirrings of recognition in it as his eyes flicked from my face to my chest to my guns and back again. I was pretty sure I hadn't seen him before.
The old guy mulled it over. "But how? I will not condone the hurting of my people; they have done nothing wrong."
Wow, for an old guy, this one was pretty innocent. If all the people here were like this, there could be a hundred witches here and none would be the wiser. The three of us that knew better shared a look.
"Well, one of the oldest of all hunter tricks could help us here," Alicia stated. "Startling the quail, so that one may see them."
"What do you need us to do?"
No hesitation at all. So innocent, so trusting.
"Call your village together. You have a square?"
The old guy nodded.
"Call everyone into it. Spare none, not even the infirm. We will help you if you wish." There was no way he would take us up on that offer, it was plain to all of us.
"We'll take over," Ivan told him. "Announce us as the hunt once all are assembled, and then do your best to look defeated. Follow our lead."
"It shall be done." The old guy announced, and turned back to his people.
Speaking of his people, the wary stares had already started. I moved a bit outside the gate, right past the ever curious Gray. As hoped, he got the message and followed me.
"Gray, can you use your scanner thing and help us out with this? Point out who is lying, and who isn't?"
I whispered just in case there were open ears about, but he heard me clearly.
"Of course, Sasha. You could do the same, with your visor. Measuring galvanic skin response, vision, and blink patterns is trivial."
"Maybe so, but I can't do it without being seen. You can. So I'm counting on you to catch anyone we miss, alright?"
Gray saluted. "Understood; no lies shall escape us."
Gray gave me a weird look, then ran off - I guess to get ready. I stayed put, holding the old wall up, wondering why I said thanks to a space alien voice in my head.
I took a long pull off my lemonade. It was changing me, but how? And how much?
No, I refused to second guess. I was who I was, I did the things I did, I had done the things I had done. What was that word, where you dissected the past. Whatever it was, I wasn't falling for it.
Ivan came to get me. "All ready in the square. We could use an extra pair of eyes."
I knocked back another mouthful of lemon. "Sure."
Four sets were better than three.
The square was a bit further in, and had another wall, of all things, around it. This one was about three feet high, all piled loose stones with wooden framed gates inset in front of the houses and other buildings facing it. I don't think I'd ever seen the like before. Why would they need such a wall here? it didn't serve to keep anything out. Would it keep anything in?
The answer hit me as I looked into the sea of tense faces. Children; this is where they kept an eye on their kids to make sure they didn't wander off or get eaten by wolves or something.
The elder started as soon as I showed, shooting me nervous glance as I took a seat on the wall next to the main gate, my guns as obvious as I could make them without actually drawing.
"These visitors are Hunters," the crowd gasped loudly, as expected. One stout lady even fainted dead away. No one went to help her, so she was probably fine and this sort of thing happened all the time. "They have come to help us with a grave problem."
Ivan stepped up, ever the showman. "You have witches among you."
I took note of faces while the villagers all stared at Ivan with variations of shock. Gray was doing his thing, and Alicia was covering the back of the crowd.
"We are tasked with removing the evil and excising the taint." Ivan intoned, brandishing two of his knives.
There. That kid was calm, and looked just old enough to be a ringleader. Many of the other kids around him were shooting glances his way while trying not to look directly. While the rest of the peons looked at their neighbors in fear, many more were looking directly at him. Too many.
For the moment, I was ignored. Ivan continued.
"Those among you inflicted with this taint should step forward. Otherwise, we shall be forced to raze this town and salt the earth of this mountain."
The shock on all faces was pretty priceless. That was also my cue; I hopped off the wall and stepped forward, patting heads as I passed.
"As you are touched, move out of line, to the right. Over there."
The right was closest to the back entrance, and a very long fall if you missed the goat path. And there was the tension, ratcheted up another notch as people realized what we were about. That we didn't really care about things like due process or evidence.
It was typical (that word didn't seem to fit, but it was close enough) to have one not go when touched; when it happened, I simply drew and pointed at the kid's head.
"Step lively, and join your friends."
He stepped, as do the others I touched on my way by. Gray ad a few I missed; I added them in.
"The rest of you, to the left, over there."
Closest to the main entrance, and safety in their minds. Thus were mothers separated from sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and all that. Even if there weren't actually any adults in my group.
I did question Ivan about leaving me in charge of this part, but it was his call.
"Alicia, do you have the album?"
"I do Sasha."
The album was a small photo album, a few hundred glossy color photos, all of towns, villages, and cities that no longer existed in any meaningful way. I mean, there was rubble, but not much else, and rubble didn't really count. There were graveyards for some of them too I supposed.
"Take this, and pass it around. Each one is a photograph of a city, town, or village... just like this one. They all have one thing in common. They were all destroyed by witches... or by the hunt after witches took them over. I want you to pay special note to all the bodies, and how few escape death. Pay special attention to the names, you'll have heard of some of them. Either way, the towns and people in them end up just as dead."
My voice was authority, but not loud; I didn't want the adults to hear. Not that they would call me a liar if they did, but I didn't need the screaming match for what we were trying to do.
The kid they all looked to stayed calm. "The hunt won't last forever, or even survive much longer!"
Idiot. "You better hope we do. Half those villages, junior, killed directly by witches themselves, just for pissing them off by existing. Now we aren't here to debate; here is what's going to happen. We know you're all involved, and no we aren't telling you how. In a year's time, a hunter team will be back, and if we find any evidence of cult activity, we burn the place down, kill everyone here, and salt the earth. If you leave, we track, find, and kill you; there is no escape from us. We are the hunt.
Alicia will hand out a token. You will wear it, it will cleanse you of any taint if worn for the year. If you do not wear it, we will know. If you do not cease your activities, we will know. You will do as we request, or your people die. Do you understand?"
The tokens were more to save them, not their people. If people saw visible action being taken, some obvious sign f redemption, they would be less likely to lynch or otherwise kill these idiots once we left. It had been known to happen.
Alicia passed out the trinkets while I stood around looking stern. Everyone hurriedly put theirs on except the suspected ringleader kid.
"Put it on kid, or you'll be dead before sundown."
He paled, and muttered at me. "You're younger than me."
Ha. He probably was, physically. "Sure about that, are you? I wouldn't be too sure."
He put the token on; a small crow made of silver. Each team had their own token, to prevent counterfeits and any confusion.
Ours was a relic of my mentor; she liked crows. I'd worn one myself, way back when.
I singled one kid at random. "You, come with me."
He led the way out of the square, a young boy that couldn't be older than eight. "W-w-what do you want?"
"We know we got the ringleader, kid, and we know we got most of the players. What I want to know from you is, did we miss anyone? I have to ask, and I picked you. Don't bother lying."
"N-no, you didn't miss any of us. You kind of added a few. Look, we were just playing, we didn't mean anything by it! We...."
And here came the tears. At least he was telling the truth. Gray confirmed it. "Don't know, don't care. All the hunt cares about is killing witches and their sympathizers."
He gulped and nodded. "Go join your friends."
I could not wait until I knocked the dust of this town and it's people from my boots.
I took the opportunity to stare out over the view. It was a nice one.
"Sasha, your friends are waiting for you." Gray said.
Time to do the rest of it. "On my way."
The village was united again, some showing off their new jewelry nervously to the rest. I got here just in time for the last act.
"Those marked with the storm crow are to be protected," Ivan intoned loudly to the mayor. "If any harm befalls them before their time of penance, their souls will be lost for all eternity. Damnation will be swift to follow."
Translation for those less superstitious: we will know if you kill the ones tagged, and we will take steps, so don't. I couldn't really blame the superstitious, they didn't know about the aliens. Not even Central really knew, come to think of it. Well, I'd hinted at it to some, at least.
Ivan turned to the French wannabe hunter. "Patrol those catacombs. Make sure they decay in peace."
The guy nodded nervously. "It will be done."
Warren looked up. "I can do that."
It was my turn to shine. "No you can't. You'll be coming with us."
The shock in his face wasn't entirely genuine - he knew. "What?!?"
"You know why. Don't make things difficult, I'm annoyed enough at you already."
He took in where my hands were, and slumped. "I won't resist. Can I at least say goodbye to my daughter?"
"Nope!" Alicia replied with false cheer. "We're leaving now."
Wait, we could use this. "Sure, go ahead."
Ivan and Alicia both stared at me like I'd grown a second head. "I'll be coming with you while you do, of course."
He blew a breath, nodded, and set off.
His daughter was sporting a crow on her dark blue and white dress. She was about twelve and sporting pig tails in her dark hair, and just beginning to grow out as well as up. As usual, even for altitudes like this, she wore no hat. Gray gave her the once over and shook his head, so that was one question answered. Warren picked her up and hugged her close.
"Margaret, honey. Daddy's got to go away for awhile, with the hunters. Be a good girl for me while I'm gone, okay? Berty will take care of you, like we planned, alright?"
The tears weren't helping; the kid knew something was up. "I don't want you to go!"
Well, I could help. Kind of. I didn't think on it twice. "It's not his choice, kid. We've got questions for him, and he's got answers. You can ask the Hunt if you need more information."
I almost added more, but no, she would know who to look for when she got old and skilled enough. If she held a grudge, that is.
"Let's go, Warren."
He put his daughter down reluctantly, and gently pried her off when she held on, crying. A large woman stepped up to grab her, and Warren twisted his way back into the gathering crowd, He wasn't quick about it, which was good for him.
We were outside the village, down the main trail and away from the elder's judging gaze before he spoke again, almost too softly for even a trained hunter to hear.
"What gave me away?"
"You tried very hard to sell us on the witch angle back in the catacombs - to try and sell yourself as clueless. We were on to you, even then. However, what clinched it? You knew entirely too much about how the hunt dealt with cults to know so little about the rest."
He mulled that over while I mulled over the lesson. At least I think there was a lesson in the man's desire to protect his daughter outing him. Be damned if I could find it though.
To Be Continued